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Singapore: We’re going to treat Covid like the flu

Naturally, no other Irish media outlet appears to have covered this story, because the only international comparisons that interest them are with the UK and the USA, and even then, only if those comparisons flatter Ireland. But it is important to note that Ireland’s approach to covid-19 is an outlier by international standards, and radically different to the plan just announced by Singapore.

There are, however, two important qualifiers to this story, which it is important to put right up front: First, though Singapore plans to radically change its covid policy, it does not plan to do so just yet. This is a month or two away yet. Second, though they say they plan to treat Covid like the flu, that is not quite true. For example, they seem to envisage a long term policy of testing, vaccinations, and all the rest of it.

That said, it is important not to underplay how significant this story is, because it spells the absolute end to any notion of “zero covid”, internationally. Here is the Op-Ed, in the Straits Times, from the two Ministers responsible for Singapore’s Covid Strategy:

“The bad news is that Covid-19 may never go away. The good news is that it is possible to live normally with it in our midst. This means Covid-19 will very likely become endemic. But what does that mean?

It means that the virus will continue to mutate, and thereby survive in our community. One example of such an endemic disease is influenza. Every year, many people catch the flu. The overwhelming majority recover without needing to be hospitalised, and with little or no medication. But a minority, especially the elderly and those with co-morbidities, can get very ill, and some succumb.

But because the chances of falling very ill from influenza are so low, people live with it. They carry on with their daily activities even during the flu season, taking simple precautions or getting an annual flu jab.

We can work towards a similar outcome for Covid-19. We can’t eradicate it, but we can turn the pandemic into something much less threatening, like influenza, hand, foot and mouth disease, or chickenpox, and get on with our lives.

Doing so will be our priority in the coming months. We already have a broad plan.”

Go to the link above, if you want to read the full plan. Basically, it involves vaccinations, rapid antigen testing, and monitoring to contain major outbreaks of the illness moving forwards. There will be no more daily case numbers: Instead, Singapore will focus on hospitalisation and death numbers. Travel will be re-opened, and there will be no more lockdowns. They’re calling it a “new normal”, which is a slightly Orwellian phrase, but the plan seems to be straightforward enough.

It is also very significant for countries like Ireland, because it makes certain that “zero covid”, as mentioned above, is a non-runner. Why? Because to achieve zero covid, and eliminate the disease, every single case internationally must be detected and isolated. Singapore giving up on that approach means that cases of Covid will go undetected, which means that the idea of eliminating it, at least with the current approach, is dead. The disease will continue to cross borders, and remain with us. Once one country admits that Covid is endemic, then every other country, sooner or later, must follow.

We are all going to end up doing some version of what Singapore is doing – re-opening our economies while Covid still exists in the community, and developing a plan to live alongside it. Many people, it seems, have yet to come to terms with that, but it is now inevitable. The only question for countries like Ireland is how long we will spend in conflict with reality before accepting this “new normal”.

There are also going to be big debates about what the “new normal” will look like. For example, if we accept that Covid is endemic, expect a major push from some parts of society to make facemasks a new, permanent, normal also. It ensures, also, that debates about tying certain activities to vaccination status will continue to be with us long into the future.

What is significant though is that this is the first time that a country anywhere in the world has admitted what has been obvious for a while: That the war on Covid has been lost. All that remains to be decided now is on what terms the peace with this invader will be negotiated. We are going to spend the rest of our lives, all of us, living alongside Covid 19, and its variant descendants. How we manage that is up to us. Living our lives as normally as possible seems like the optimal and inevitable outcome. But it might take Ireland, and NPHET, a long while yet to come to terms with that.

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